Our Burning Planet


Canada’s raging wildfires disproportionately affect Indigenous communities

Canada’s raging wildfires disproportionately affect Indigenous communities
(Photo: Unsplash / Issy Bailey)

Between 10 June and 10 July, estimates for the number of Canadians displaced by wildfires went from about 100,000 to just over 150,000.

Out of Canada’s total population of roughly 40 million people, only about 5% of that number identify as Indigenous. That is close to two million people, according to the 2021 Census of Canada Indigenous People.  

Wildfires are displacing Indigenous communities across Canada, burning down homes and forests and threatening cultural activities like fishing, hunting and gathering native plants.

In Edmonton, Alberta – where South African firefighters are assisting in fighting wildfires – 85% of the East Prairie Metis Settlement, which covers 334km2, is reported to have been consumed by fire. 

Raymond Supernault, the settlement’s chairperson, told AP Canada that this was a huge blow to the food sources of his community, who to a large extent live off the land.

“We don’t just jump in the car and go to the IGA [supermarket]. We go to the bush,” Supernault said.

Besides vegetation, animals like moose and elk are also part of the food sources for Indigenous communities and fires play a large part in the displacement or death of these animals.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Smoke from Canada’s wildfire spreading around the globe, heightening concern over air quality, human health 

A national risk profile report on wildfires by Canada’s Department of Public Safety, states: “Not all communities are impacted by wildland fires in the same way. For example, many Indigenous communities are at higher risk and experience more severe impacts than non-Indigenous communities. For example, First Nation reserves and communities with a primarily Indigenous population represent 5% of the total population, but experience 42% of wildland fire events.” 

The report also looked at the risks of wildfires in the future, saying they would increase, for three key reasons: “Population and industrial growth in forested areas… Climate change is causing longer fire seasons and more intense and frequent wildfires… Changes in land use and management practices have created more sources of ignition.”

Air pollution

The risk profile report also looked at the effects of wildfire smoke.  

“It is also noted that wildland fires have become a leading cause of air pollution and its associated health burden in Canada over recent years, and that smoke can disperse over large geographical areas, impacting human health near and far.” 

canada wildfires

Smoke from wildfires in the provinces of Quebec and Nova Scotia as seen on 28 June 2023 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo: Ian Willms / Getty Images)

Professor Mark Ashton of the Yale School of the Environment told Daily Maverick: “Fires and forests in certain climates are very much part of the dynamic of many of the forests… It’s cyclical and it’s related to the relationship between the forest type and the trees that have evolved with fire, and have evolved with various types of strategies to either endure the fire or regenerate through fire – or both.

“There are core climates where that co-evolution of fire-adapted species and climate has occurred… one is Mediterranean… Australia in general… your own country, South Africa, has a very strong Mediterranean climate – a lot of California is Mediterranean, and of course, the Mediterranean itself… But fire is very much a driving force of those ecosystems and there are certain shrub types, chaparral or the fynbos in South Africa, that are really fire-adapted.

“They grow to a certain degree of maturity and then when a fire comes along the whole thing goes off, usually triggered by a super annual dry period or a period of years where it is exceptionally dry.”

Ashton explained that in these ecosystems the vegetation is fire-adapted to the point where it resprouts or the seed “will essentially store itself in the soil, waiting for a fire. In those systems, what’s happened is with climate change, those systems have accelerated… fires have become more frequent and much hotter.”

More fires mean less regeneration, which can be especially devastating for Indigenous peoples living close to the land, as is being experienced in Canada.

Ashton adds that apart from fires burning longer: “If it’s a really hot fire and it’s destroyed the capacity to regenerate, there’s a potential for mudslides and… where if the regeneration does not come back, the surface root map does not revive itself, you’re very susceptible to a downward spiral from erosion.”

While he noted that this was currently happening in the Mediterranean, he stressed that wildfires in North America were headed in the same direction. 

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report in October 2020 looked at the impact of global warming and climate change on traditional sources of food and ways of living for Canada’s Indigenous people.

“Indigenous people of Canada are among the lowest contributors to greenhouse emissions in the country, yet academic research shows they are among the most exposed to climate change impacts,” the report found.

On 18 July, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre noted that in the year to date, 11 million hectares had burned, with 577 fires still out of control – of the 891 fires currently burning. DM

To read all about Daily Maverick’s recent The Gathering: Earth Edition, click here.

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